NCF Nation: Anthony Gonzalez

Pittsburgh Panthers season preview

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Pittsburgh Panthers:

Key returners: QB Chad Voytik, RB James Conner, RB Isaac Bennett, WR Tyler Boyd, TE J.P. Holtz, LT Adam Bisnowaty, C Artie Rowell, RG Matt Rotheram, RT T.J. Clemmings, DE David Durham, LB Anthony Gonzalez, LB Todd Thomas, CB Lafayette Pitts, S Ray Vinopal

Key losses: QB Tom Savage, WR Devin Street, DT Aaron Donald, LB Shane Gordon, CB K'Waun Williams, S Jason Hendricks

[+] EnlargeTyler Boyd
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPittsburgh wide receiver Tyler Boyd looks to build on a freshman All-America season.
Most important 2014 games: Sept. 20 versus Iowa, Oct. 16 versus Virginia Tech, Nov. 1 versus Duke, Nov. 15 at North Carolina, Nov. 29 at Miami

Projected win percentage (from Stats & Info): 63.5 percent.

Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 wins.

Instant impact newcomers: Avonte Maddox and Phillipie Motley are a pair of freshman cornerbacks who will likely be counted on heavily to provide some needed depth at the position, as Titus Howard's season-long suspension leaves Pitt with just two returners with any experience at the position (Pitts and Trenton Coles). Both Maddox (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) and Motley (5-foot-9, 165 pounds) arrived this summer as ESPN three-star prospects, and the learning curve will likely be accelerated as the Panthers search for more bodies in coverage.

High point from 2013: A 28-21 win over Notre Dame on Nov. 9 buried the Fighting Irish's remaining BCS bowl hopes and, at least partially, erased some of the sting from Pitt's consecutive three-point losses to them in 2011 and 2012. It's more useful, however, to look back at the 30-27 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win over MAC champion Bowling Green, as youngsters Voytik, Conner and Boyd all stepped up in a big way, something each hopes is a sign of things to come for 2014.

Low point from 2013: A 24-21 loss at Navy on Oct. 26 marked the first of a two-game slide (Pitt lost at Georgia Tech a week later), threatening to keep the Panthers out of postseason play before they pulled off the upset the following month over the Irish. Still, Pitt dropped three contests in a four-game stretch surrounding the loss to the Midshipmen, with its only win during that stretch coming against Old Dominion.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Voytik builds off his late-game experience from the Pizza Bowl and gives Pitt a dynamic threat under center, the experienced-but-shaky offensive line jells, Boyd continues his ascent and the defense makes big strides. Pitt takes advantage of a rather friendly schedule, makes a run at 10 wins and emerges as the champion of a Coastal division that is simply begging someone to step up.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: The offensive line continues to struggle, leaving Voytik vulnerable and the offense out of flux. The front seven fails to make up for the loss of Donald, allowing opponents time to test a green secondary. The Panthers win four games, taking a step back after consecutive bowl seasons in Paul Chryst's first two years. The youth on this team, however, is probably still enough to keep the future promising.

They said it: "I feel fortunate to be at Pittsburgh. You talk about a school with unbelievable football tradition and a city that absolutely -- it's a great sports town but a heck of a football city. High school football is big on Fridays. Obviously the Steelers are big on Sunday. We want to be a team that reflects the city and reflects the university and the tradition of a great university. I want the ex-players to be proud of Pitt and Pitt football, and I know they certainly are proud of it. But that's where we want to go, and that's what I mean, we're not where we want to be. But I sure appreciate and enjoy going through and facing that challenge with this group of guys, and for every challenge there's an opportunity." -- Chryst, on how he defines Pitt football

Halftime: Pitt 20, Syracuse 10

December, 3, 2011
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In the battle for bowl eligibility, Pitt has a 20-10 lead on Syracuse going into halftime thanks to several Orange mistakes.

Syracuse turned the ball over twice in the first 2:25 of the game, leading directly to 10 points for Pitt. The first half has been all about mistakes for the Orange, who have nine penalties for 90 yards. One of them -- a personal foul on Ri'Shard Anderson -- helped Pitt score its lone touchdown on a prolonged offensive drive, when Anthony Gonzalez scored on a 17-yard run out of the Wildcat.

The Orange have been able to move the ball, but their drives stall. They had one first-and-goal at the 9 but settled for a 22-yard field goal from Ross Krautman.

Pitt has not exactly looked crisp on offense, either. Running back Zach Brown and receiver Ronald Jones are both out. Tino Sunseri has taken several sacks as well, including one in the red zone that forced the Panthers to settle for a 36-yard field goal from Kevin Harper.

The winner of this game becomes bowl eligible. Syracuse has lost four straight. Running back Antwon Bailey has 30 yards in the first half, getting him to over 1,000 yards on the season.
We continue our look at team position rankings with quarterback. This is a position of strength for the league with so many starters returning, and the addition of two very high-powered offensive attacks. Should be quite fun to watch.

1. West Virginia. Geno Smith is about the closest to a Heisman candidate as the Big East has going into the season. He had a solid sophomore season, and now with the addition of Dana Holgorsen to the offense, should be the pre-eminent quarterback in the league. Three of Holgorsen's past six quarterbacks passed for 5,000 yards. Not many folks can throw that stat around. Depth is a bit of a concern. The current backup is invited walk-on Paul Millard, a true freshman. True freshman Brian Athey is listed No. 3.

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
Mark Zerof/US PresswireCincinnati's Zach Collaros is part of a strong group of returning quarterbacks in the Big East.
2. Cincinnati. It is really close between Zach Collaros and Smith. Collaros is the defending first-team Big East quarterback and certainly has what it takes to throw for 3,000 yards this season. He has tremendous wide receivers with a lot of talent as well. The offensive line has to step up to give him some more time to throw. But either way, Collaros is in line to have another great season. The backup spot also is uncertain here, with the departure of Chazz Anderson. Munchie Legaux and Jordan Luallen will battle in the fall.

3. Pittsburgh. I know Tino Sunseri has taken his share of lumps, but he has the potential to have his best season yet with the new offense coach Todd Graham plans to install. Yes, there are questions about Sunseri and whether he can throw the deep ball, but look for him to be asked to make more high-percentage passes than chucking 70-yard bombs. There also is uncertainty here with the suspension of Anthony Gonzalez. Both he and Mark Myers are redshirt freshmen and were competing for the backup job.

4. USF. B.J. Daniels was inconsistent and banged up last season, but closed the year with a nice game against Clemson. Will that translate into a season that knocks people's socks off in 2011? What should help is the fact that he is going into the season with the same offensive coordinator as the previous one. There is continuity there for him. There are questions at receiver and on the offensive line, but Daniels could have his best season. Backup Bobby Eveld has experience -- and was the hero of that big win against Miami.

5. Rutgers. The next three spots in the rankings are a bit murky for me. You could make an argument for each team to be in either the 5-6-7 spot. I chose Chas Dodd here because I think he has the potential for a good season. The Scarlet Knights have a clear vision on offense, and they also have some of the most talented receivers in the league. Going back to a more pro-style attack should help, and Dodd made some serious strides in the spring. Depth is an issue, with true freshmen Gary Nova and Mike Bimonte expected to be in the mix for the backup job.

6. Syracuse. Ryan Nassib made some strides in his first season as a starter, and seems to be poised to take the next step. He has a solid receiving crew and a solid offensive line. His performance against Kansas State could serve as a launching point for him going into this season. But this is a team that has struggled to make big plays in the passing game, and that is going to have to change for Nassib to climb up this list.

7. Louisville. This ranking is a mere reflection of the uncertainty around the position. The Cardinals and Huskies are the only two teams with this position unsettled, hence the rankings. There is no denying the potential that Teddy Bridgewater brings. But he is a true freshmen, and true freshmen are simply wild cards. Will Stein is steady, but is he the man to guide this team to a league championship? Both will play, but who is going to step up and take charge?

8. UConn. The Huskies have no starter right now and have a four-man race between Michael Nebrich, Scott McCummings, Johnny McEntee and Michael Box. Coach Paul Pasqualoni hopes to get this resolved as quickly as possible, but since this is the only team with major uncertainty, the Huskies land here.

Previous rankings
PITTSBURGH -- A few quick thoughts and observations from what I got to see of Pitt's spring practice on Tuesday:
  • I was looking forward to seeing just how high-octane this offense was, to use Todd Graham's description. While the usual drills and other periods were held at the same tempo as a lot of practices I've seen, when Pitt went to an 11-on-11 drill it was pedal to the metal. The offense was sprinting to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball in under 10 seconds. That doesn't mean it was effective. There was a bad shotgun snap from Chris Jacobson and another one mishandled by backup quarterback Anthony Gonzalez. Throw in an incomplete deep ball, and the short team period looked a little disjointed. But fast.
  • In the past couple of years, Pitt was always what Dick Vitale would call an "All-Airport" team. That is, they looked awfully good in their uniforms. The Panthers don't look quite as physically imposing this spring, but perhaps that's just because guys like Jon Baldwin, Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard are not longer around. This team still has plenty of talent, though depth looks like it could be an issue.
  • Tino Sunseri has pretty clearly established his hold on the starting quarterback job as the incumbent. He had a little trouble hooking up with receivers on deep balls while I was watching, but the coaching staff loves his poise and experience. Remember that Graham has won with quarterbacks who weren't necessarily physical specimens but who were really smart. Sunseri, as a coach's kid and with a year under his belt, fits that bill.
  • Gonzalez got the first backup QB snaps on Tuesday, though he didn't throw as much as Mark Myers in some other drills. It's hard not to like Myers' skills; he's tall and throws a very tight spiral. Is he the right quarterback for this system? That's a good question, considering he looks like a prototypical pro-style signalcaller, which is one reason why he signed with Pitt.
  • Receiver Cam Saddler was back on the field after missing some time with a leg injury. The 5-foot-7 speedster has got to love this offensive system after not really getting used much by Dave Wannstedt. He's the kind of waterbug Graham found success with at Tulsa. Devin Street and Mike Shanahan look terrific as the top two wideouts. Pitt just has to find more guys behind them.
  • The first-string offensive line, for what it's worth, saw Lucas Nix and Jordan Gibbs at tackle, Greg Gaskins and Cory King at guard and Jacobson at center. Gaskins struggled last year when he was first given a chance to start but now he's a senior. After Gaskins made a nice block in a lineman drill, offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich yelled, "If you do that, you can play here."
  • As usual in these settings, it's hard to tell a whole lot about the defense when there's not much hitting. But Graham raves about his defensive line, saying tackle Chas Alecxih in particular has had a huge spring. He also says cornerback K'Waun Williams "can be special." Some currently injured players like Brandon Lindsey, Antwuan Reed and Todd Thomas will help when they're healthy.
I had a chance to catch up with new Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham on Wednesday for a forthcoming spring preview Q&A.

I also had to ask Graham about the Sports Illustrated/CBS News story last week that highlighted all of the program's legal problems in the past year, all of which occurred on Dave Wannstedt's watch. Graham said he is confident that those problems have been addressed and won't continue to plague the team.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
AP Photo/John HellerTodd Graham has instituted rules against cursing and wearing earrings and bandanas in the locker room.
"We've talked about character, integrity and discipline, and that's how we're going to do everything we do," he said. "We're a yes sir, no sir, yes ma'am, no ma'am crew. I've been impressed with the young people here. We have guys with great character."

Graham instituted several rules when he came in, including barring the wearing of earrings and bandanas in the locker room and meeting areas and outlawing cursing.

"I told them that no one in the country is going to do this, but we're going to do it," he said. "It's a physical symbol that it's not about me, it's about the team. Our guys have responded in every way. I think kids will meet whatever expectations that you set for them.

"Things have happened here that were unacceptable, but we've addressed those and are moving forward. I told the kids that I started off 26 years ago coaching 7th grade football, and I don't want to win by taking shortcuts and cutting corners. It's about winning every day, not just on Saturday and not just one season."

As for the story itself, Graham said, "My vision is that next year they will write an article about all the great things our kids are doing."

A couple of other quick notes:

  • Graham said Brandon Lindsey, No. 13 on my Top 25 player countdown, will make the perfect "Panther" linebacker -- the hybrid position in Graham's 3-4 defense. Lindsey, who played defensive end at 250 pounds last year, is excited about standing up as a linebacker and will move around the field. But Lindsey won't do much this spring after offseason shoulder surgery, and Pitt will try to identify other players who can fill that role in his absence.

  • Linebacker Dan Mason, who dislocated his knee in last year's Miami game, won't be back for the spring either. Graham called his injury a "month-to-month" thing. And if you saw it, you know how gruesome the injury looked.

  • Graham said incumbent starter Tino Sunseri holds the edge at quarterback, but that he's excited to see Mark Myers and Anthony Gonzalez this spring, too. He said Sunseri, being a coach's son, has an excellent chance to grasp his no-huddle offense and will benefit from being in the shotgun.

Big East spring preview

February, 23, 2011
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Spring practice is just around the corner -- South Florida will be on its new practice fields next week, while other Big East teams will follow suit shortly after.

So here's a look at what to expect from each league team this spring.

Cincinnati

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Fixing the defense: There's little doubt that improving the defense is the first order of business in Clifton. The Bearcats ranked last in the Big East last season while giving up 28 points per game. The good news is that all 11 starters on that side of the ball are back. The bad news is those are the same guys who couldn't get it done a season ago. An extra year of maturity should help, and Butch Jones expects more depth and competition on defense, including the arrival of junior-college import Malcolm Murray at safety.
  • Restocking the Binns: Cincinnati should still be strong on offense with the return of senior quarterback Zach Collaros and senior Isaiah Pead, the leading returning rusher in the Big East. Yet the loss of the league's most productive receiver in 2010, Armon Binns, means the Bearcats need to find a few more guys to make plays at receiver. D.J. Woods is an obvious choice as the new go-to guy, but he'll have to solve his fumble problems. Transfer Kenbrell Thompkins, who couldn't get eligible last season, will look to step forward. Another sidelined receiver, freshman Dyjuan Lewis, won't be cleared to join in team activities until the summer.
  • Looking for leaders: One of the problems during the 2010 4-8 season, as voiced by departing senior Jason Kelce and implied by Jones, was a lack of leadership on the team. Hey, it happens sometimes when your program has been to back-to-back BCS games and young players feel an undeserved sense of entitlement. Jones has been trying to change that, and we should be able to tell during the spring whether some new leaders have emerged.
Connecticut

Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Back to the future: For the first time since the end of 1990s, and for the first time ever as an FBS-level program, the Huskies will have someone other than Randy Edsall leading them through practice in March. Former longtime Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni took over when Edsall left for Maryland, and Pasqualoni hired new coordinators (George DeLeone on offense and Don Brown on defense) to mix in with the holdovers from Edsall's staff. UConn has been doing things the same way for a long time, and with pretty strong results. How will the team react to Pasqualoni's new-look, old-school ways?
  • Backfield in motion: Quarterback Zach Frazer is gone. Star tailback Jordan Todman left early for the NFL. Fullback Anthony Sherman graduated. Everything behind center is new. The quarterback position looks pretty wide open, with sophomore Michael Box perhaps having the edge after making one (very unsuccessful) start in 2010. Early enrollee Michael Nebrich is one to watch. How will the Huskies replace Todman? Good question. Robbie Frey decided to concentrate on graduate school, leaving USC transfer D.J. Shoemate as the only experienced ballcarrier. Freshman Lyle McCombs' status is unclear for spring after his offseason arrest, and the two running backs in the signing class won't arrive until summer. Right now, it's anybody's guess as to who might carry on the UConn running back tradition.
  • Reloading at linebacker: The Connecticut defense brings a lot back, but one position that needs refilling is linebacker. Lawrence Wilson, who led the Big East in tackles the past two seasons, and Scott Lutrus, a four-year starter and solid leader, both exhausted their eligibility. Sio Moore looks like a rising star and had some huge games in 2010, but the other two positions have large shoes to fill.
Louisville

Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 15

What to watch:
  • Smooth sailing for Bridegwater?: The Cardinals' most pressing issue is at quarterback, where senior co-starters Justin Burke and Adam Froman are gone. Highly-touted recruit Teddy Bridgewater will participate in the spring, and how quickly he picks up the college game and coordinator Mike Sanford's system could go a long way to determining what happens this fall. If he needs more time, senior Will Stein will happily take the reins.
  • Rebuilding the O-line: The key to Louisville's offensive success was its senior-laden line, which proved to be the best in the Big East a year ago. But now four new starters must be found to go along with center Mario Benavides. The new guys must get up to speed and develop chemistry quickly for the running game and presumed new starter Jeremy Wright to duplicate last season's progress.
  • Last line of defense: Louisville's defense was most vulnerable at its back end at times last season, and now the Cardinals must replace both starting cornerbacks (including All-Big East first team performer Johnny Patrick), no to mention two senior linebackers. An obvious candidate to take over some leadership is safety Hakeem Smith, who was the Big East rookie of the year. The plus side is that Charlie Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford will have more young talent to work with.
Pittsburgh

Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Golden Graham?: There will be no more drastic change in the Big East this spring than the offense at Pittsburgh, which will go from a run-based pro-style attack to Graham's no-huddle, wide-open, points-per-minute machine. Can the Panthers get this new offense up and running this spring? Does Graham have the players to make it work? And how will his offense, so successful in Conference USA, translate into the more rugged Big East? All those questions will be fascinating to follow.
  • Quarterback competition: Junior Tino Sunseri started every game in his first year at the controls in 2010, and he played well at times. But a new style and new coaching staff means that he might have an edge, but not necessarily an insurmountable one, in this spring's competition. Redshirt freshman Mark Myers is multi-talented and will be given a look, along with classmate Anthony Gonzalez and Kolby Gray. The current staff has no loyalty to Sunseri, so he'll need to perform at a high level this spring to keep his job.
  • Shoring up the 'D': It's no secret that Pitt struggled in defending the pass last season. Graham's offense may be more explosive, but he doesn't want to have to get into shootouts all the time. He and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have experience running 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 formations and may go to more of those kinds of looks to counter the increasing spread offenses throughout the league. First Pitt will have to get better play from its secondary and linebackers in pass coverage, and that starts this spring.
Rutgers

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:
  • Line change: The first thing to focus on this spring for the Scarlet Knights is the front five on offense. The offensive line has been a mess for the past two years and was an utter disaster a year ago. Head coach Greg Schiano is counting on junior-college center Dallas Hendrickson to provide some immediate help, and that another year will lead to better things for the returnees. Rutgers needs answers at right tackle, especially, and if the line can't block its own defense in spring practice, you'll know there's trouble.
  • A Frank re-assessment: Former Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti takes over the Scarlet Knights' playcalling duties this spring, and his pro-style background seems like a perfect match for what Schiano likes to do. Look for Cignetti to try to establish a stronger running game this spring (while waiting for mega-recruit Savon Huggins to arrive this summer) and abandon the Wildcat formation and other gimmicks that Rutgers desperately turned to the past two years. His work with sophomore starter Chas Dodd will also be critical, since there are no other experienced quarterbacks on campus.
  • Recharging the defense: You always expect a Schiano-led defense to be rock solid, but that defense wore down last season and ended up allowing more points in conference play than anybody. Three of the starting four defensive linemen are gone, as well as the team's leading tackler -- linebacker Antonio Lowery -- and safety Joe Lefeged. Schiano has recruited well and has lots of young players ready to step into bigger roles. Spring will be the time we start to learn who's ready to handle increased responsibilities.
South Florida

Spring practice starts: March 3
Spring game: April 2

What to watch:
  • Transfers accepted: Running backs Darrell Scott and Dontae Aycock have strong credentials; Scott was one of the more sought-after recruits in the country before disappointing at Colorado, while Aycock was set to play for Auburn. Both become eligible this year and will show their stuff this spring. The two big-bodied ballcarriers could add some power and explosiveness to the Bulls offense. Notre Dame transfer Spencer Boyd should bring depth, at the very least, to the secondary.
  • B.J. still the main Bull?: Junior B.J. Daniels seemed to reassert himself as the starter with a big performance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl win over Clemson. But before that, there were serious questions about whether sophomore Bobby Eveld might unseat him. Daniels goes into the spring with an obvious edge, but he'll be pushed by Eveld and redshirt freshman Jamius Gunsby. He'll need to perform at a consistent level to stiff-arm questions about his job security.
  • Receiver reconstitution: No doubt, receiver was the position that needed the largest upgrade a year ago. The bad news is, the Bulls lost leading pass-catcher Dontavia Bogan, who was nearly a one-man show at wideout in 2010. On the flip side, A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin return from injury. And Skip Holtz hopes getting thrown into the fire last season sped the development of guys like Evan Landi, Joel Miller and Lindsey Lamar. At the very least, the position has a lot more experience and depth than it did a year ago at this time.
Syracuse

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Displacing Delone: Senior Delone Carter brought the thunder to the Syracuse running game the last two years, and he may have been the least favorite ballcarrier for opposing tacklers to bring down. With him gone, it remains to be seen whether the smaller Antwon Bailey can be an every-down back, or if youngsters like Prince-Tyson Gulley and Jerome Smith are ready for an increased role in the offense.
  • Linebacker makeover: It would be hard for any team to lose a more productive linebacker tandem than the Orange did with seniors Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith. They were both crucial to what defensive coordinator Scott Shafer liked to do. The lone returning starter is Marquis Spruill, who played as a true freshman last year. Could a newcomer like junior-college transfer Siriki Diabate be ready to help immediately?
  • Wideout wonders: Marcus Sales helped rescue an ailing passing game with his breakout performance in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Is Sales ready to play like that all the time now, or was he a one-game wonder? Will Van Chew continue the improvement he showed last season before getting injured? Can the Orange get more out of Alec Lemon? What new faces might help at receiver? The answers to these questions will be key to the attack under Nathaniel Hackett, who was promoted to offensive coordinator this offseason.
West Virginia

Spring practice starts: March 28
Spring game: April 29

What to watch:
  • Dana days: Mountaineer Nation is salivating at the thought of what Dana Holgorsen will do to revive the offense. Holgorsen has had an immediate and incredible impact at the last two places where he called plays, and some solid work in the spring is required to do the same in Morgantown. A couple of things are for sure: the Mountaineers will be throwing it around a whole bunch during practice, and fans will breathlessly gobble up every small detail. Another thing to watch will be the chemistry between Holgorsen's hand-picked offensive staff and Bill Stewart, the man he'll replace at the end of the season. That relationship will also be dissected relentlessly.
  • Defense reload or rebuild?: Most people assume West Virginia will continue to field an excellent defense because of coordinator Jeff Casteel. That may be true, but no team lost more defensive talent than the Mountaineers, who must replace frontline players like tackle Chris Neild, linebacker J.T. Thomas, safety Robert Sands and cornerback Brandon Hogan, among others. There's still a lot to like here, including ends Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin and corner Keith Tandy, but for Casteel must find new contributors to keep his 3-3-5 humming along.
  • Who's in the backfield?: It's not yet know just how much quarterback Geno Smith will be able to do during spring practice after his offseason foot surgery. Obviously, the more reps he can take, the better he'll be able to get Holgorsen's system down. And there's no experience behind him. West Virginia will be cautious with Smith, though, because the fall is way more important. With Noel Devine gone and Tavon Austin seemingly making his move to receiver permanent, there will be competition for the starting running back spot. Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke are bulldozers who could add an interesting wrinkle to Holgorsen's spread if they get the job done.
It's hard to win in college football without a good, experienced quarterback. So perhaps it should have been no surprise that several Big East teams struggled on offense at times in 2010.

Remember last offseason, when we talked about how South Florida's B.J. Daniels and Rutgers' Tom Savage were the most experienced league quarterbacks in terms of starts despite coming off their freshman seasons? Even that wasn't a great indicator of success, as Daniels had to adjust to a new system and Savage got hurt, benched and eventually decided to transfer.

The good news for the Big East is that there will be many more experienced signal-callers ready to open the 2011 season. First, let's take a look at which quarterbacks will have the most career starts under their belts when next season rolls around:

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
Frank Victores/US PresswireZach Collaros should be Cincinnati's starter in the fall.
1. Daniels, South Florida, junior: 22 career starts

2. Zach Collaros, Cincinnati, senior: 15

T-3. Ryan Nassib, Syracuse, junior: 13

T-3. Geno Smith, West Virginia, junior: 13

T-3. Tino Sunseri, Pittsburgh, junior: 13

6. Chas Dodd, Rutgers, sophomore: 8

7. Will Stein, Louisville, senior: 2

8. Michael Box, Connecticut, sophomore: 1

Daniels will be the graybeard as a third-year starter, but Collaros, Nassib and Smith all saw significant time in the 2009 season. Smith, Sunseri, Dodd and whoever Connecticut's starting quarterback is will all be playing for a new offensive coordinator this season.

Now let's look at the likelihood of potential quarterback battles this spring at each school:

Cincinnati -- Chance of competition: slim to none. Collaros is the established guy and a great leader who shouldn't have to worry about job security.

Connecticut -- Chance of competition: high. Box made only one start and it was a disastrous one against Louisville. With new coach Paul Pasqualoni coming in, recruit Michael Nebrich enrolled and several other candidates on the roster, this one looks wide open.

Louisville -- Chance of competition: guaranteed. Stein, a former walk-on who's under 5-foot-10, has a ton of moxie. But he'll have to hold off highly-touted early enrollee Teddy Bridgewater for the gig.

Pittsburgh -- Chance of competition: medium to high. Sunseri started every game last year and improved during the season, but new coach Todd Graham brings an entirely new offensive system. Don't be surprised if redshirt freshmen Mark Myers and Anthony Gonzalez get a serious look this spring.

Rutgers -- Chance of competition: slim. At least for the spring, Dodd should be safe. His only real competition will come from a pair of incoming freshmen this summer.

South Florida -- Chance of competition: good. Daniels may have more starts than anybody, but Skip Holtz is at least going to let Bobby Eveld push him in the spring. And don't forget about redshirt freshman Jamius Gunsby.

Syracuse -- Chance of competition: possible. Nassib started every game in 2010 and had an excellent bowl performance. But Syracuse has a lot of quarterbacks on the roster, including once-hyped recruit Jonny Miller. Nassib has the definite edge but can't get complacent.

West Virginia -- Chance of competition: tiny. Smith is the man in Morgantown, and his two freshman backups in 2010 transferred. The only concern is his foot injury that may hold him out of spring practice drills as Dana Holgorsen installs his new offense. But only a monumental upset or further injury would prevent Smith from starting the opener in 2011.
When Dane Sanzenbacher speaks before games, he senses the electricity in the Ohio State locker room.

Sanzenbacher, one of six Buckeyes co-captains this season, impels his teammates to carry over their energy onto the field. But he also tells them to leave something behind.

"It's an emotional game, there's a lot riding on everything, but you can't play with fear," Sanzenbacher says. "Fearlessness is probably one of the most important aspects of trying to be a good player. Nerves can be fine before a game or other emotions, but when it turns into fear, your opponent already has the upper hand."

[+] EnlargeDane Sanzenbacher
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesOhio State's Dane Sanzenbacher isn't afraid to put his body on the line to make a catch.
Sanzenbacher's message might sound hollow if he didn't go out and back it up. Fortunately for Ohio State, there probably isn't a more fearless wide receiver in college football than No. 12.

Sanzenbacher's evolution as one of the Big Ten's best receivers has taken place in the middle of the field, usually surrounded by defensive backs and linebackers itching for a kill shot.

It has been a painful progression at times: Sanzenbacher suffered concussions in each of his first two seasons and has absorbed more than a few massive body blows, usually in midair. But the 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior wouldn't have it any other way.

"When the ball's in the air, you jump up to get it," Sanzenbacher said. "Yeah, in the back of your mind, you think, 'My legs might get taken out, I'm probably going to get hit on the end of this,' but you have to make the catch. It's the game we signed up for, so might as well play it."

Sanzenbacher has played it extremely well this season. He leads the Big Ten and ranks 26th nationally in total receiving yards (591). He's fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards average (73.9), sixth in receptions (4.6 rpg) and, before last week, led the league in touchdown receptions.

Sanzenbacher has caught eight touchdown passes -- one or more in five of Ohio State's first eight contests -- to match his total from his first three seasons.

Although the touchdown catches are nice, Sanzenbacher is best known for the plays he makes outside of the end zone. He made several gutsy grabs in Ohio State's Oct. 16 loss at Wisconsin, including this one, when he flipped over after a hit from Badgers safety Aaron Henry, but still hung on to the ball for a first down. After the game, members of the sideline crew found Sanzenbacher's father and congratulated him on Dane's gritty performance.

"He is fearless," Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said. "My reaction is great when he comes up with those catches, and I cringe a little bit when I see people storming over there to take a good shot at him. But Dane can take care of himself."

Sanzenbacher downplays the punishment he appears to take on some of his more acrobatic catches.

"A lot of times, film can be deceiving," he said. "Sometimes I'll watch it on film, it'll look bad and I'm like, 'Wow, it really didn’t feel that bad.' And sometimes you’ll look at hits that hurt a lot and they didn't look that bad. So you can never really tell."

Sanzenbacher isn't the first Ohio State receiver to build his reputation on the most dangerous area of the field. After Sanzenbacher caught four touchdown passes in a Week 4 rout of Eastern Michigan, Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor called him a "slick little sneaky guy" and likened him to former Buckeyes Brian Hartline and Anthony Gonzalez.

It's a good comparison, as both Hartline and Gonzalez shined in the slot receiver role for the Buckeyes.

"The majority of the guys who have played this position before me, or had inside roles here, haven't been afraid to go across the middle," Sanzenbacher said. "It's probably a characteristic that gets you on the field. You wouldn’t be playing the position otherwise."

Pittsburgh recruiting analysis

February, 4, 2010
2/04/10
11:00
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Analyzing the 2010 Big East signing classes ...

Pittsburgh

View class here.

Signees: 24

Heavy on: Defensive backs (six)

Geographic trend: Pitt has, surprisingly, no players from Florida. But the Panthers landed four from Ohio after getting none from that state last year. And it opened up a route to powerhouse DeMatha Catholic in Maryland, with two prospects from there signing on.

Headliners: QB Anthony Gonzalez (four stars), DT Aaron Donald (four stars), DE T.J. Clemmings (three stars).

Sleeper: QB Mark Myers is only rated a two-star prospect by Scouts Inc. But he's tall (6-foot-4), played for a top program in Cleveland's St. Ignatius High School and is a pro-style passer who could fit Dave Wannstedt's system well.

Best potential for immediate impact: Cornerback Saheed Imoru is a junior college transfer who enrolled early and may earn an immediate starting job.

Needs met: Pitt had a pressing need at cornerback, and the numbers tell you that Wannstedt aggressively attacked it. The Panthers also had to restock the defensive line, and Clemmings and Donald should help in that regard.

Analysis: This is as strong a class as there is in the Big East, full of potential impact players who also fit into Wannstedt's style of play. The fact that Pitt was able to wrap up this class extremely early and hold off late challengers is even more impressive. Wannstedt is turning Pitt into a program that just keeps churning out talent.

What Wannstedt said: "I think it's our deepest class. ... The key for us is to make sure we continue to uncover the Dion Lewises, the Andrew Taglianettis, the Greg Romeuses and the Mike Shanahans. ... Nine of our players played on state championship teams last year ..."

Scouts Inc. grade: B-minus.

Pitt finalizes class of 24 signees

February, 3, 2010
2/03/10
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It was a relatively stress-free signing day for Dave Wannstedt and his staff.

Pitt, which had wrapped up most of its 2010 recruiting weeks ago, signed all 24 of its commitments today, the school announced.

"We had an outstanding season on the field this fall and that momentum carried over to our coaches’ recruiting efforts,” Wannstedt said. “Prospects are recognizing the national emergence of our program and they want to be part of that."

Pitt will likely be ranked at or near the top of the class rankings in the Big East. Some of the headliners include the Pennsylvania all-staters like defensive lineman Aaron Donald, quarterback Anthony Gonzalez and receiver Kevin Weatherspoon, plus top New Jersey prospect and defensive lineman T.J. Clemmings, as well as prep school standout Todd Thomas.
It's Super Bowl week, and here in Chicago, we're celebrating the hiring of Mike Martz as Bears offensive coordinator after a month-long search. Hope Jay Cutler has a life insurance policy.

OK, moving on to less depressing topics, like the Big Ten and Super Bowl XLIV.

Once again, the Big Ten has plenty of connections to the game, including 20 former players on the two teams, more than any other conference.

All 11 member schools will be represented by a player and/or coach participating in the game. Michigan has the highest number of former players (four), followed by Ohio State (three) and then six teams -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin -- each with two former players. Penn State and Minnesota will have former coaches on the sideline Sunday.

Both head coaches have Big Ten roots, as the Colts' Jim Caldwell played at Iowa and served as an assistant at Iowa, Northwestern and Penn State. The Saints' Sean Payton had a one-year stint as an Illinois assistant in 1996.

Here's the full lineup of Big Ten links to Super Bowl XLIV, courtesy of the league office:

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Players

Kelvin Hayden, DB, Illinois
Dallas Clark, TE, Iowa
Bob Sanders*, DB, Iowa
Mike Hart, RB, Michigan
Marlin Jackson*, DB, Michigan
Ervin Baldwin, DE, Michigan State
John Gill, DL, Northwestern
Anthony Gonzalez*, WR, Ohio State
Curtis Painter, QB, Purdue
Jim Sorgi*, QB, Wisconsin

Coaches

Jim Caldwell, Head Coach (Played at Iowa from 1973-76; Assistant at Iowa in 1977, Northwestern in 1981 and Penn State from 1986-92)
Larry Coyer, Defensive Coordinator (Assistant at Iowa from 1974-77 and Ohio State from 1991-92)
Gene Huey, Running Backs (Assistant at Ohio State from 1988-91)
Tom Moore, Offensive Coordinator (Played at Iowa from 1957-60; Assistant at Iowa from 1961-62 and Minnesota from 1972-73 and 1975-76)
Ray Rychleski, Special Teams (Assistant at Penn State in 1991)
Bill Teerlinck, Defensive Assistant (Assistant at Indiana from 2003-04)
John Teerlinck, Defensive Line (Assistant at Illinois from 1980-82)

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Players

Pierre Thomas, RB, Illinois
Tracy Porter, CB, Indiana
Courtney Roby, WR, Indiana
Adrian Arrington, WR, Michigan
Jonathan Goodwin, C, Michigan
Zach Strief, OT, Northwestern
Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State
Will Smith, DE, Ohio State
Drew Brees, QB, Purdue
Jonathan Casillas, LB, Wisconsin

Coaches

Sean Payton, Head Coach (Assistant at Illinois in 1996)
Greg McMahon, Special Teams (Assistant at Minnesota from 1983-84 and Illinois from 1992-2004)
Bret Ingalls, Running Backs (Assistant at Northwestern from 2006-08)
Aaron Kromer, Offensive Line/Running Game (Assistant at Northwestern from 1999-2000)
Mike Mallory, Assistant Special Teams (Played at Michigan from 1982-85; Assistant at Indiana from 1986-87 and Illinois from 2001-05)
Terry Malone, Tight Ends (Assistant at Michigan from 1997-2005)

*-Injured reserve

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